Liberal arts degrees often get a bad rap, with many criticizing them for not leading to careers in high-paying or in-demand jobs. Yet these kinds of stereotypes don’t tell the whole story about liberal arts majors in the real world. While many liberal arts grads won’t go on to find work in English, history, or philosophy, they will find great jobs working in a wide range of other professions, very often using skills they learned through their college liberal arts programs. Business is no exception, and many top executives don’t have MBAs or degrees in business at all. In fact, 6% of the CEOs of the top 500 S&P companies and 15% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies hold undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts. Here, we highlight just a few of the notable CEOs who started their careers in the liberal arts.
- Carly Fiorina, Medieval History and Philosophy:
Carly Fiorina has had some pretty high-profile jobs in business. She was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard until 2005, before that serving as an executive at AT&T and Lucent. She’s also been actively involved in politics, running for Senate and advising Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Yet this career path wasn’t the direct result of an undergraduate degree in business. Fiorina graduated from Stanford in 1976 with a degree in philosophy and medieval history, subjects she said helped her better understand the challenges of the digital revolution. Fiorina would later go on to get an MBA from the U of Maryland and a master’s in management from MIT, but her early years in the liberal arts left an indelible mark on her career.
- Michael Eisner, English and Theater:
Michael Eisner is one of the most widely known executives on this list, largely because of his work as CEO of Disney from 1984 until 2005. His more-than-two-decade run as chief executive officer was preceded by several years as the CEO of Paramount Pictures, another high-profile position that wasn’t secured by having a degree in business. Eisner graduated from Denison University in 1964 with a degree in English and theater, never having taken a single course in business. Eisner has said that he appreciates the lessons his English degree taught him, saying, “Literature is unbelievably helpful because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships. It gives you an appreciation of what makes people tick.”
- A.G. Lafley, French and History:
A.G. Lafley graduated from Hamilton College in 1969 with a double major in French and history, with plans to go on to a doctoral program at the University of Virginia. Lafley’s career might have been much different if the Vietnam War hadn’t been going on, prompting him to take a commission as a supply officer rather than continuing his studies. When he returned to school after the war, his goals had changed and he completed his MBA at Harvard in 1977. From there, Lafley would work at Proctor and Gamble until his retirement in 2010, serving as its Chairman of the Board, President, and CEO throughout his career there.
- Sam Palmisano, History:
Sam Palmisano was president and CEO of IBM for almost a decade, stepping down from the position in early 2012. Yet business wasn’t always the most obvious career choice for Palmisano. He received a bachelor’s in history from Johns Hopkins and was a standout musician and an exceptional football player, even being offered the chance to play professionally. After college, however, Palmisano pursued neither history nor music nor athletics, instead joining IBM as a salesman, and from there would work his way up the ladder to eventually become a leader in one of the largest IT companies in the world. While he would never formally use his degree, Palmisano still counts reading history books as one of his favorite hobbies.
- Dan Hesse, Government and International Studies:
You’ve likely seen Sprint CEO Dan Hesse in the company’s commercials, promoting their well-known unlimited plans. While Hesse holds higher degrees from Cornell and MIT in management and business topics, his undergraduate studies were focused on liberal arts subjects: government and international studies to be precise. Hesse graduated from Notre Dame in 1975 with a focus on these areas, but an internship with AT&T may have steered him toward his future career as an exec. Hesse would work for AT&T for 23 years, working his way up from intern to President and CEO before joining Sprint in 2007.
- Hank Paulson, English:
Paulson couldn’t be further from the stereotype of the unemployed English major. Paulson graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in English in 1968, also ranking as one of the school’s best football players. Paulson would waste no time in heading back to school, however, getting his MBA from Harvard in 1970. He would almost immediately find work at the Pentagon and later at the White House under Nixon. It wasn’t until 1974 that Paulson joined Goldman Sachs, working his way up to COO in 1994 and CEO in 1998. He would later go on to serve as the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush. Not too shabby for a simple English major.
- Christopher Connor, Sociology:
Christopher Connor might not be a household name, but the products produced by the company he heads sure are. Connor is the chairman and CEO of Sherwin-Williams, a leader in the paint and building materials market. Connor joined the company in 1983, just a few years after graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in sociology. He began his career with Sherwin-Williams as an advertising director but has been CEO since 1999, later holding positions as chairman and president. He is undoubtedly one of the highest-paid sociology majors of all time, bringing in almost $7.5 million in compensation in 2009.
- James Dimon, Psychology:
James Dimon graduated from Tufts University with a degree in psychology and economics. While both of these majors are generally considered to be in the liberal arts, they are also highly advantageous areas of expertise in business. Dimon learned this quite quickly, finding work as a management consultant immediately after graduation. He enjoyed working with the business aspects of these fields so much that he would return to school just two years later, earning an MBA from Harvard with honors in 1982. Today, Dimon is the chairman, president, and CEO of JPMorgan Chase and has been named in numerous years as one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.”